The man who entrusted average Californians with political power through the ballot initiative system in 1911 said that direct democracy places “in the hands of the people the means by which they may protect themselves.”
Wild guess: Back then, the late governor Hiram Johnson probably wasn’t referring to porn stars putting on Trojan prophylactics.
Nevertheless, a century after Progressive reformer Johnson brought the initiative, referendum, and recall system to California voters, his notion has proved versatile enough to give The People a say on accoutrements employed by dirty-movie entertainers.
“Porn producers tell the media that performers have a choice when it comes to condoms,” one veteran actress said, on behalf of a proposed measure regulating hardcore films. “What they don’t tell you is that if a performer wants a condom, they’re paid less. Sometimes producers will fire you for asking.”
The condom issue arises as the L.A.-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation is close to qualifying for the ballot legislation to oversee what the porn trade association refers to as “the pleasure products and adult entertainment industry.”
A case study of how even the most idiosyncratic special interests now routinely use Johnson’s grand design, the condom initiative is merely one of an astonishing 70 potential initiatives and constitutional amendments targeting the 2016 election.
Earnest advocates for a multitude of diverse political notions — a six-year prison term for shellfish consumers, a five-cent-per-ounce tax on bottled water, a ban on transgender bathrooms, expansion of the Legislature to 10,000 members, and a quadrennial vote on California’s secession from the Union, among others — are now out hustling signatures for pet causes; there’s also one to legalize the keeping of ferrets as, well, pets.
FUN WITH NUMBERS: To be sure, only a small number of the 70 wannabe laws will achieve the required number of signatures to make the ballot — 365,880 for statutes and 585,407 for constitutional amendments. Since the system began, with the 1912 ballot, 1,855 have been legally approved for circulation, according to the secretary of state; of these, 363 — 20 percent — qualified for the ballot, and just 123 won voter approval, giving ferret/secession proponents an overall 6.6 percent chance of success.
Despite the silly nature of many suggested measures, a steady two-thirds of Californians like the system, according to polling by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).
They also have criticisms, however: 55 percent in a 2013 PPIC poll said the process is mostly controlled by special interests, while 70 percent said there are too many ballot measures and nearly 80 percent said many initiatives are too complicated and confusing.
But efforts to reform the process — by requiring more transparency about the financial backers of initiatives, for example — in recent years have gone exactly nowhere.
“History suggests that initiative reform will not be an easy task,” PPIC chief Mark Baldassare wrote in an analysis of possible reforms, the understatement of the century.
So here is a glance at some substantive circulating initiative proposals for citizens who may be confronted at Costco by pushy signature gatherers.
• Taxes: The “temporary” tax increases sponsored by Governor Brown and approved by voters in 2012 will soon expire; public employee unions are promoting two different measures to extend higher tax rates on the wealthy; one calls for a 2020 expiration, while the other would make increases permanent.
• Marijuana: Six separate initiatives are circulating to legalize personal use of pot or ease restrictions on medical marijuana. A group organized as ReformCA is expected to attract the most financial support, with backers predicting a $14 million campaign.
• Environment: Industry interests have qualified a referendum to roll back the state’s ban on plastic bags. The measure would not affect local bans like Santa Barbara’s, but the fight over the statewide repeal will likely be the most expensive of 2016.
• Vaccinations: Religious, alternative medicine, and “personal choice” opponents of a new law requiring common vaccinations in public schools are gathering signatures to repeal it.
As for the condom controversy, the pro-industry Free Speech Coalition argues that current self-regulation protocols work well and plans to fight the public health measure.
“Performer health is important. But performers, the most tested population on the planet, should have the ultimate right to control their bodies and their health,” said Diane Duke, executive director of the group. “They don’t deserve to be shamed or treated as a public danger or to have their rights trampled.”